December 24, 2010

The South, Secession, Slaves & John Brown

Four days ago, there were fancy celebrations in South Carolina. It was the 150th anniversary of the Palmetto State becoming the first to secede from the US. Much was made by the partiers of the proposition that this had been an exercise in fighting Big Government and upholding states’ rights.

They are unlikely to be celebrating today, at least in public. That’s because 150 years ago the elected legislators of South Carolina issued a document explaining their move, Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.

I know you’ll be stunned to learn this, dear reader, but it turns out the reason the state tried to bail was: slavery. No, make that: slaves.

Of course it is customary in thinking about the period to refer to “slavery” as the cause of the Civil War, and my point here may be a bit nit-picky, but to me, “slavery” seems too abstract a term. It describes a social institution, but slaves were people! Sometimes folks lament the carnage of the Civil War by saying “Slavery would have died out anyway….” Make the subject of that sentence “Slaves” and the whole premise has to be reconsidered.

And the SC legislature was well aware that the stakes in their desperate political stroke was slaves, not just slavery. The Declaration of the Immediate Causes in its short paragraphs contains a twofold vision of slaves, as valuable pieces of property to be defended and as an omnipresent danger to be kept under tight guard.

The charges justifying separation from the Northern States, whose citizens had just elected the next President, Abraham Lincoln, read, in part:

[T]hey have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Servile insurrection! This had always been the deepest dread of the slaveowners. Look at the ascending nature of the list of offenses the people of the Northern States are charged with--speaking against slavery, organizing to free the slaves, acting to free them and, the ultimate enormity, helping slaves to rebel and free themselves.

And in 1860, this prospect was glaringly real, thanks to the Harpers Ferry raid conducted by abolitionist John Brown and a small band of Black and white freedom fighters only a year before.

The Harpers Ferry raid is usually portrayed as helping trigger secession because it stirred Northern opposition to slavery and Southern fears that Northern tolerance of this great evil was coming to an end. But, as the Declaration of Immediate Causes shows, Southern fears were also directed at menaces more local and immediate.

To underline this, one need only look at events in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry in the weeks between John Brown’s trial and his execution on December 2, 1859. As word of the raid spread through the plantations, they began to burn. “The heavens are illuminated by the lurid glare of burning property,” fretted a Richmond daily.

On October 31, “a Negro boy” torched the barn and stable of George Fole. Eleven days later three straw ricks belonging to John LaRue and the carriage house and granary of a Dr. Stephenson combusted on the same night. Planters rushed to reap and harvest early, lest their crops go up in flames

A planter by the name of Ulare who raised cattle, soon wrote the governor, blaming abolitionists and begging help:
[T]hree stockyards have been burnt in this county alone since their capture and since their trial—last night one of mine was burned destroying not less than $2000 worth of property.
To no avail. On December 2, all the animals on two separate farms belonging to members of the Turner family died suddenly. The next day one of those farms caught fire. And that same week, properties owned by three of the jurors who convicted Brown and his men were destroyed by flames!

Small wonder the South trembled and sought to cut off ties with the contagion from states where many citizens memorialized and honored John Brown.

[The historical material is largely drawn from a splendid article entitled “Regional Black Involvement in John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry.” It was written by a scholar named Hannah Gellert, with the assistance of Jean Libby. It details extensive Black participation in the planning and preparation of the raid, the death of as many as 17 local free Blacks and slaves who joined Brown's squad during the battle and the response summarized above. The piece can be found in a volume entitled Prophets of Protest, edited by McCarthy and Stauffer.]

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December 19, 2010

Sex & Wikileaks: That Other Scandal

Even though the official Obama administration review of Afghanistan shows just how shaky the occupation there is, Wikileaks continues to be the big news story two weeks on (thanks in no small part to the US decision to try and take down Julian Assange via a sex scandal—the media loves them some sex scandals, especially ones involving slender, pale blonds).

There’s one document in the first thousand released that I want to highlight here, in part in observance this weekend and Friday of the monthly War Moratorium. The story takes place at the corner of Afghanistan and Wikileaks. Though it also features non-consensual sex, it has received little play in the US media. (No blonds, perhaps?) And behind the sex lies an even more shocking story.

The cable (as they are called) from Kabul to Washington reports a desperate plea by Afghan Minister of the Interior Hanif Atmar to US embassy officials. He needs help covering up a story he fears will break soon.

It seems that a Texas-based mercenary firm, DynCorp, which rakes in about $2 billion a year, 95% of it from your tax dollars, is being paid to run centers (RTCs) to train Afghan police and troops. At their Kunduz center, DynCore threw sort of a graduation party for their most recent charges. on April 2009

This was a bacha-bazi (translation: “boy-play”) party. The entertainment was procured from local pimps: young teen and pre-teen boys who had been dressed in women’s clothes, made up and forced to gyrate seductively to music for their stoned audience of Afghan troops and DynCorps employees.

At the end of the evening’s entertainment, the kids were raffled off, with the winners taking them back to their quarters to fuck.

It’s not surprising that Minister Atmar freaks out when some reporter is rumored to have gotten hold of the story. The embassy advises him not to make a big deal of it or approach the reporter; that will only make things worse.

And, indeed, when a Washington Post article touches on the story in July of last year, nothing much seems to have happened. It’s covered as an incident of "questionable management oversight" in which foreign DynCorp workers "hired a teenage boy to perform a tribal dance at a company farewell party.”

Move along, folks, nothing to see here...

Well, let me just point out a couple more things that we need to see, beyond the grim horror that was DynCorp’s idea of Prom Night and beyond the widespread and telling silence from the US media, even now that the leak of the State Department cable has given them a chance at a do-over.

First, the leaked document features one of the more bizarre parenthetical statements seen recently in any government report. Interior Minister Atmar begs the US vice ambassador to have the US military increase the level of its oversight of DynCorp. Embassy folks shine him on:

We are also aware of proposals for new procedures, such as stationing a military officer at RTCs, that have been introduced for consideration.
Then the sender of the “cable” reminds his State Department superiors, in the parentheses I mentioned:
(Note: Placing military officers to oversee contractor operations at RTCs is not legally possible under the currentDynCorp contract.)
Just try and wrap your brain around that—the US government has no right to oversee the operations of the mercenaries it has hired to do its dirty work. And, let me note, this contract language exists despite the fact DynCorp employees were exposed as kidnapping, raping and buying and selling young girls during US military operations in Bosnia in 1999.

Second, another State Department statement that patronizingly calls the dancing boys a "widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape," especially in the Pashtun South of the country, displays a striking ignorance about recent Afghan history.

The Taliban, the main enemy of the US occupation in Afghanistan, is of very recent origin. With the Soviet occupation defeated by 1989, the country became a battleground of brutal warlords. In the spring of 1994, one of them abducted two young girls in Singesar, shaved their heads and raped them.

A one-eyed veteran of the anti-Soviet war, now teaching at a madrassah near Kandahar, Mullah Omar, mobilized 50 of his students. (The word Taliban is just the plural of the word talib, “student”.) They armed themselves, freed the girls and hung the commander from a tank barrel.

Word spread and ordinary folk in the area begged further help. In the fall, Omar and the students were told about two other local commanders who had killed civilians while battling to seize a young boy. Again, the Taliban moved, defeating the militias, killing the commanders and freeing the boy.

This time they kept rolling as other Afghans rallied to their standard. Within three months the Taliban controlled 12 provinces and were headed for Kabul. It certainly seems that a lot of ordinary Afghans somehow fail to understand that the widespread kidnapping and rape of their sons and daughters is “culturally sanctioned.”

What’s more, I rather doubt that the imprimatur of DynCore and the US occupation authorities is going to be enough to make this incident seem okay to the people of Kunduz Province.

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